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Posted: Mar 19, 2013 5:04 PM

Updated: Mar 19, 2013 5:04 PM

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) A Texas Senate committee approved on Tuesday a bill that would put tighter regulations on abortion facilities in Texas, a measure that some worry may force smaller clinics to close.

Sen. Bob Deuell, R-Greenville, defended his bill from fierce criticism on Tuesday that what he really was trying to do was impose a "back-door" ban on abortion.

"Abortion clinics are regulated by the state, but they are not regulated as a surgical facility, they are governed by a lower standard," he said. "I am pro-life, I make no secret about that. I make no secret that I don't think abortions should be legal, but I also face the reality that they are, and given that fact, I think we should take all precautions."

Senate Bill 537 would only allow abortions in facilities that state regulators say qualify as an ambulatory surgical center, places with operating rooms for minor surgeries. The bill also would require that women could only take an abortion inducing pill in the same facility. The bill moved to the full Senate on a vote of 5-2, with Democrats opposing it.

Under current law, a woman may take an abortion-inducing pill in a doctor's office and would be sent to hospital if she suffered complications and needed surgery.

Abortion rights supporters complain the new tougher standard for clinics would cause many women's health clinics to shut down since they can't meet the higher standards. They say that rural and poor parts of the state will especially be affected.

"This bill places onerous requirements on health centers, requirements that do nothing to improve the health or safety of women," said Carla Holeva, CEO of Planned Parenthood of West Texas. "Senate Bill 537 is a back door abortion ban, plain and simple. If passed, this bill would effectively end access to a safe and legal medical procedure in this state, which is harmful for women's health."

Deuell adamantly denied that his bill would deny women access to an abortion, though he acknowledged that out of 38 abortion clinics in Texas, only five would meet the new requirement. The proposed law would only apply to facilities that provide more than 40 abortions a year.

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LAWMAKERS CONSIDER WHO CHOSES FOR TERMINALLY ILL

More than a dozen witnesses offered testimony ranging from the scientific to the deeply emotional on Tuesday as Texas senators tried to hammer out revised rules for what happens when a terminally-ill patient's family and doctors disagree on continued treatment.

Sen. Bob Deuell, a Republican doctor from Greenville, said that when doctors want to stop treating a patient his bill would give the patient and family more rights and more time to appeal the decision. He said some right-to-life activists will say the final decision should be made by the patient's family, but he defended his proposal as an important improvement.

"When does more treatment not mean better care? I realize that this is uncomfortable and difficult to talk about," Deuell said.

Under current law, the question of whether to continue treatment goes to a hospital ethics committee if the family disagrees when the doctor wants to stop treatment. If the committee agrees with the doctor, the family has 10 days to find another hospital that will treat the patient.

Senate Bill 303 would extend the 10-day period to 14 days. Even if the ethics committee agreed with the doctor, the new law would require doctors to continue feeding and hydrating patients as long as it doesn't cause them pain. Doctors may stop providing water and food under the current law.

The Texas Hospital Association surveyed 202 hospitals across the state of all sizes and found that between 2007 and 2011, doctors and the families disagreed in 30 cases out of 3.7 million patients admitted. The Ethics Committee agreed with the doctor's conclusion 70 percent of the time.

The Texas Medical Association and the Texas Hospital Association support the bill along with the Texas Alliance for Life, Christian Life Commission and the Texas Catholic Conference.

Dr. Arlo Weltge, speaking on behalf of the Texas Medical Association, said doctors support Deuell's proposed changes to the law, but oppose bill by other lawmakers that would leave the decision with the family.

"Sometimes the best I have to offer a patient isn't intervention, but care for emotional and physical suffering," Weltge said. "This protects the physician-patient relationship, it protects patients from unnecessary suffering, it protects against the provision of potentially unethical, inappropriate or outside the standard of care treatment."

But Jerri Lynn Ward, an attorney whose sister is profoundly disabled, said the law wrongly puts the burden on the family to find someone willing to keep their loved one alive.

"I see nothing in the bill that tries to deal with the fact that ethics committees are heavily stacked with people who depend on the hospitals for employment, or who depend on the hospitals for finances," she said.

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TEXAS SENATE APPROVES SOME STATEWIDE TERM LIMITS

Texas senators delivered a subtle rebuke to three-term Gov. Rick Perry on Tuesday, approving a bill that would limit future statewide office holders to two consecutive terms.

While Perry was not mentioned by name, lawmakers made oblique references to the need for new leadership.

Republican Sen. Kevin Eltife, who joined the Senate after local term limits prevented him for running for re-election as mayor of Tyler, said the proposal would produce "new ideas and fresh perspectives in government."

The Senate advanced the proposed constitutional amendment to the House with a vote of 27-4. If approved by voters, the amendment would apply to governors, lieutenant governors, attorneys general and state agency commissioners. It would not apply to judges or the legislators themselves.

Outfitted with a grandfather clause, the proposal would exempt Perry, who has been elected to three consecutive terms since taking office in 2000. In that time, he has remade the state government's executive leadership through his political appointments. After an unsuccessful presidential campaign last year, he has said he may run for a fourth term in 2014.

Asked about the proposal on Tuesday, Perry's spokeswoman said, "The governor has always said Texas voters are the best determiners of term limits."

Thirty-six states currently limit gubernatorial terms, according to the Council of State Governments.

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LAWMAKERS CONSIDER GUN TRAINING FOR TEXAS SCHOOLS

Texas would pay for employees at some schools to learn to carry a gun on the job under a proposal being considered at the state Capitol.

The Senate Education Committee debated the measure at a hearing Tuesday.

The bill by Houston Republican Sen. Dan Patrick would apply to charter schools and public schools that do not already have armed security guards. It would require the state Department of Public Safety to provide firearms training for two employees per campus.

Several proposals to extend the reach of guns in schools have gained traction in the Legislature, which opened its biannual session a month after 20 schoolchildren were killed in a mass shooting in Connecticut.

The National Rifle Association has called for an armed guard in every school in America.

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BILL WOULD REQUIRE DNA TESTING FOR DEATH PENALTY

Texas prosecutors would be required to test all biological evidence for DNA before seeking the death penalty under a measure a Democratic state senator proposed Tuesday with the backing of the Republican attorney general.

The bill authored by Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, is intended to ensure that only the guilty face execution. He said after-trial DNA testing has reversed 17 death penalty cases in the United States.

"We always want to avoid the possibility of the wrong person being executed," Ellis said. "We've dodged this bullet a couple of times thanks to advocates for people who have been wrongfully convicted."

Ellis said he does not oppose the death penalty but that the state needs to require testing before a case goes to trial. In two recent cases, exonerations came only after those wrongfully convicted spent more than a decade on death row and appeals courts ordered evidence tested for DNA.

Attorney General Greg Abbott said he also was concerned about false convictions but added that testing beforehand could shorten the appeals process for those who are guilty.

"If you are innocent, you will find out your exoneration will come sooner; if you are guilty, justice will be more swift and more certain," he said. While the testing may slow when a trial begins, it is better to take the time beforehand to ensure the police have the right suspect rather than to find out later someone was wrongly convicted, he added.

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NEW MEDICAL SCHOOL PLAN WINS PASSAGE IN HOUSE

A Texas Senate panel has endorsed letting private schools join the University Interscholastic League for all sports and activities except football and basketball.

Tuesday's vote by the Senate education committee sends the bill to the full Senate for consideration. The measure by Sen. Dan Patrick, a Houston Republican, is the latest effort to let private schools into the UIL, which has been rejected by lawmakers in previous years.

Public schools have resisted allowing private schools into the UIL over fears of recruiting for sports. Patrick has compared the separation to the era of racial segregation.

State law already allows two large Catholic schools, Dallas Jesuit and Houston Strake Jesuit, to compete in UIL. Dallas Jesuit won the first private school UIL state championship in boys' soccer in 2010.

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QUOTE OF THE DAY:

"There is bipartisan agreement that there should be pay raises for journalists in Texas." Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, along with Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, joking with reporters before a press conference. Ellis agreed, but admitted he did not know where they money would come from.

Topics: Capitol Almanac

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